My brother Nigel in England asked me to write this article to accompany a portrait of King George I that is being sold by his art and antique business. I find George I interesting, so here is the story. (My brother’s official website is http://www.nigelrhodesfineart.com/.)
The first Hanoverian king did not get the dynasty off to a good start.
So desperate were the English to guarantee the Protestant succession after Queen Anne’s death in 1714, that they turned to a distant relative who lived in Germany and asked him to become King. More than fifty closer relatives were passed over because of their Roman Catholicism. It had taken almost two centuries to secure England’s freedom from Rome – there was clearly no turning back.
George I was King of Great Britain and Ireland from August 1st, 1714, to his death in 1727. At the same time, he retained his German titles that he had held since 1698. He was also ruler of the Duchy of Brunswick-Luneberg and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire. His two successors, George II and George III would also hold the same titles, until the dismantling of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
George I was never comfortable speaking English. If someone did not speak his native German, he would converse in French.
Although the people were thankful to have a protestant monarch, George was never popular. He had a bad reputation even before he arrived on England’s shores. After his wife had committed adultery with a Swedish guardsman, he had the man murdered and then imprisoned her and would not let her see their two children, one of whom was the future George II. While Prince of Wales, the future George II, was anxious for the death of his father, not so much to be king himself, but to be able to see his mother again. However, she died shortly before her husband.
“He was by nature neither warm nor congenial (“the Elector is so cold that he freezes everything into ice,” his cousin remarked), and those who had to deal with him soon discovered that beneath his shy, benign reserve their lurked a deeply suspicious, even vindictive nature. Accustomed to unquestioning obedience, George was selfish and easily offended. And once offence was given, the wrong could never be made right.” (Royal Panoply, George I, by Carolly Erickson, 2003.)
When George became king, he journeyed to England to ascend the throne, but had intended to return to Hanover as soon as possible. His acceptance of his new responsibility owed more to his conviction that it would be good for Hanover, than to any desire to serve the British people.
The year after his ascension, he faced rebellion at home. Jacobites, loyal to the Catholic Stuarts, wanted to place the son of James II on the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland. When the Pretender landed in Scotland and raised his standard against the king, many Scottish towns declared themselves for James. But George was resolute – he had faced the Turks and the French and was not about to be defeated by the Stuart usurper. James soon returned to France, discouraged by the lack of support he received from the people.
Immediately after this victory, George returned to Hanover, one of five visits he made to his old home during his reign. At the time, Hanover was at war with Sweden. George had allied his electorate with Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, in hopes of acquiring territory from the Swedes after their defeat. But George was soon faced with a crisis in his new home and had to return to London, where the government had degenerated into squabbles.
Without realizing it, after 1720, George contributed to the modern democracy that has given the United Kingdom three centuries of stability. Robert Walpole was his first prime minister. Indeed, he was also the first prime minister of the country, one of the most competent prime ministers in a long line of, arguably, questionable heads of government. Walpole blended the power of the Crown with the growing power of parliament, in a balance that remains with us to this day.
Although the king shunned public appearances, on warm summer nights, he would board his open barge at Whitehall with a small party of friends, travelling upriver to Chelsea. Other barges would soon join the royal barge, one of which had a full orchestra of fifty musicians on board. The music they played filled the air and was very popular with Londoners. George had brought with him his favorite musician George Frederick Handel, who composed much of the music played on these royal evenings, music that is still popular today.
George will also be remembered for the South Sea Bubble, one of the greatest financial catastrophes in history. Its collapse ruined thousands of people.
The company was set up to refinance thirty thousand pounds of government debt, a vast sum in those days. The debts were converted into shares of the company’s stock. As investors rushed in to make a killing, the value of the shares kept rising, shares in other companies rising along with them. Inevitably, the bubble burst and the shares became worthless. As the king was the Governor of the company, he got the blame, inspiring the Jacobites to plan another insurrection, which also failed.
While George I may not be anybody’s favorite monarch, his legacy lives on to this day in his descendant Queen Elizabeth II. George I founded a dynasty, which has lasted more than three centuries and given the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth Realms unrivalled political stability. For this we should all be thankful. Thanks also to the first Hanoverian who had a small part in this achievement.